Audio Part 1:
Audio Part 2:
Introduction by Dorthea Calverley
Bert Moffatt’s story is included not because it tells of exceptional incidents but because it is typical of the experiences of many pioneers who found opportunity for a full life in the Peace River Country. Bert Moffatt tells his own story clearly, humorously, and factually. From a story such as this one, we can recapture the events of early settlement, and, as well, something of the atmosphere of pioneering days. The story is transcribed from an interview recorded on tape in 1974 for the Senior Citizens’ radio program hosted by Mr. Erdman Hendricks.
The fall of 1928 and the year of 1929 was a time of high adventure in my life. By early October I had collected my summer’s wages, including an excellent threshing season of 30 days at Melrose, Saskatchewan. I had over $500 in cash and excellent securities, and I decided it was time I became a man with property. With this in mind, my first decision was to homestead somewhere.
Money was fairly easy to get in 1928. In fact one of the banks in Rosetown, Saskatchewan, had suggested I should take a loan from them, buy a half section of land together with the horses and machinery to work it and go to it on my own. Land was selling for $100 an acre and this seemed like a lot of money to me, particularly when I could get 160 acres by homesteading either in Saskatchewan or in the Peace River Block.
Old timers will remember the homesteading laws. You bet the Dominion Government $10.00 that you could build a house, clear 30 acres, crop twenty and live on the land of your choice six months a year for three years. If you couldn’t do it you lost the ten dollars, if you could, you got a clear deed to the surface rights to your quarter section. This looked easy to me, so in a couple of days I was on a train to Prince Albert, and from there to Tisdale which was close to the Northern side of farmland at that time, and North East of Tisdale was my goal.
Early the next morning found me in the Tisdale land office picking up maps, rules and regulations, etc. There was a high urgency around the land office. It seemed to me that everybody in Saskatchewan wanted to get some of this free land and I had to wait in line for some time before I could get my wants supplied. While waiting I met three or four French Canadians who lived close by but who had a car and who also were going searching for homesteads that day, and they kindly offered to take me along.
Nice country around Tisdale — still is I guess. We travelled by car as far as we could, we walked for miles up and down cut lines, I liked what I saw I liked my guides, I liked the deep black soil and the tall poplar trees growing straight and shiny to the very sky, and I liked the friendly spirit of those who were already building their little log cabins on the quarter sections of there choice.
As a result, when my jovial French guides dropped me off in Tisdale that evening asking me to go with them again the next day on more of a search, I felt I was making a very big mistake when I said, “I have been hearing about the Peace River Block ever since I was ten years old, back in Ontario and I fell that I should at least go and see it before I settle down here and become a rich Saskatchewan farmer. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks, look you up and at that time make up my mind what land I want. I would like to have it in the same area you decide on so that I would have some friends from the very start.”
“Sure, sure” they said, “that will be fine, are you married”? I said “No”. “We’ve got lots of girls in our village”, they said, and on this happy note we parted.
Back on the train again to Prince Albert, to Saskatoon, to Edmonton and again to their land office for maps. For you see although I know the train went further I did not know the name of any towns and I felt I just had to know my destination.
I soon found that one line led from Edmonton to McLennan where the road forked, one part going to Grande Prairie and on to a little place called Wembley which was the end of steel. The other branch went to Peace River town, thence across the Peace River to a place called Waterhole. Beyond Waterhole and Grande Prairie was a fine squiggly line that ran through such places as Dunvegan, Rolla, Pouce Coupe, Hythe and Beaverlodge. That looked good to me so I brought my ticket to Grande Prairie, reasoning that the larger town would have a hotel or a rooming house where I could stay for a day or two before I started making my way along that squiggly line through Beaverlodge, Hythe, Pouce Coupe, Rolla, Dunvegan and Waterhole, where I would buy a ticket back to Tisdale, the land of my dreams, where the poplars grew big and straight and tall and the villages were full of jolly French girls.
Well, after hours of travelling I arrived in Grande Prairie and spent a few days there, looking over this vast new country. I made it out as far as Hythe where workmen were laying the foundations for the elevators that are still there. There was assurance that the N.A.R. would get as far as Hythe in ‘29. I also visited a friend from Rosetown, Saskatchewan, who had taken a homestead at Goodfare. The smoke curling from the chimney of his clean new cabin, his wife feeding some chickens in the yard, and some new breaking made me feel that I was wasting time and should get on with the job of making a home of my own.
Back in Grande Prairie I found a Clarence Reinertson who had driven a one-ton Chevrolet truck all the way from Rolla with wheat and was loading up groceries to take back to the store in Rolla. He was glad to take me with him for any help I could give him.
About 9:30 on the morning of November 11, 1928 we left Grande Prairie for Rolla. We made it to Beaverlodge for noon lunch, and crossed Canyon Creek south of Pouce Coupe just at dark. On we drove through Pouce Coupe in the dark and then after carefully negotiating the tricky curves of the Dawson Creek Canyon arrived on the great prairies on the Rolla district just as a bright full moon burst out to show me the miles and miles of grain fields, just recently harvested but with the stubble still standing thick and tall and healthy. Here was the Peace River country of my dreams. This had all been cleared and farmed for possibly twelve to fifteen years. We arrived in Rolla about 11 p.m. of the same day we had left Grande Prairie. This was really good time and spoke very well for the new modern Chevrolet truck with its four forward speeds and one reverse.
It also spoke well for the road, all graded dirt road fourteen full feet wide on the top. The canyons that we came to at the last had been worked on with horses and scrapers so that, although they were built to carry four and six horse teams pulling heavy loads of four to six tons, they could also be negotiated in comparative safety by this new modern gadget, the truck, which could haul a ton over those same hills at two miles an hour and then not being a bit tired roar along on the level stretches at fifteen to twenty miles an hour.
Where was I? Oh yes we landed in Rolla about eleven at night and I booked into the Columbia Hotel for the rest of the night. My hosts and hostesses were Butch and Nan, Maude, Art and Jack Webb, in the full flower of youth, and, strange I can’t think of her name, Mrs Joe Dill (Dean) who had just recently married a young second-hand furniture salesman, Joe Dill. Butch Webb was the owner of this hotel and he, with his wife Nan as cook, his daughter Maude as waitress, and Art and Jack and Dean made me feel as if I had come home. I’ll never forget Maude’s cheery call, “Come and get it or I’ll throw it out.” I should explain that in those days most hotels filled a huge table with the best of food, called all the guests in at one time and let them eat all they wanted.
In the morning I walked out east of Rolla, toward the rise of the hill where the graveyard is now. As the full view of the Pouce Coupe River valley burst upon me, I just had to stop and look at it with my mouth open. Within seconds I knew I was home. Here I would finish whatever time was granted to me — and here, God willing, my body would be buried, a most gratifying experience and just as fresh in my mind now as it was some forty-six years ago.
Not only was the rather intensive search for the last three weeks over, I knew immediately that I had been looking for this all my life and that my long seeking was over.
It is also very true that somewhere out in that vast area I still had to find a spot of my own and so without further ado I set about it.
As I had known Jim McFarlane back in Rosetown, Saskatchewan, I walked on down to his place, and made arrangements to stay with him for a few days while I looked around. They were living in a little log cabin about 12 x 14 feet and how Mrs McFarlane along with her two daughters, Margaret and Loretta and husband Jim, managed to squeeze me in, I’ll never know.
I looked and inquired around for several days — hired a guide once. One day I walked down over the steep banks of Saskatoon Creek where it joins the Pouce Coupe River at Hackett’s Crossing, up the other side, past where McRanns now are, and along a crooked wagon road which was once a branch of the Spirit River trail. I left the trail east of where Stan Peterson now lives and walked a surveyor’s cut-line north to the main Spirit River trail which ran east from Rolla across the Pouce River at Braden’s and on out the abandoned railroad grade to Spirit River. This cut-line ran along the west side of Bern Fletcher’s quarter and here I found Bern and his father starting to pile up the rather heavy windfall that was on his place at that time. This trail was really only two wagon tracks through the brush. In the winter, with a foot of snow on it, heavy loads could be hauled over it but now it was really only two foot paths, side by side.
On this road I met Walt Moore who told me how to ford the river which I would have to do in another mile or so. I had had trouble fording the river at Hackett’s crossing that morning. In those years the Pouce Coupe was running full and free and very fast. At the fords it was about one foot deep and this current, along with the round slippery rocks on the river bottom, left the wader in very real danger of getting dumped and, at the very least, getting the seat of his pants wet.
Walt told me to select a good stick about five or six feet long. Then take my boots and socks off, tie my socks around my neck where they had the best chance of keeping dry. Then replace my boots on my feet, and using my stick as a prop, work my way carefully across the river. On reaching the far bank pour the water out of my boots, replace my nice warm socks and reasonably dry boots and carry on. Crossing this Pouce Coupe river was a very real hazard in those days and any of the old timers in the Bonanza district can tell of at least one hair-raising adventure they have had while doing so, especially in flood times which seemed to occur two or three times a year.
This walk was one of many I took, going back to McFarlane’s at night to sleep.
One day three or four miles east of Rolla I met three young fellows with a team and light wagon who were on their way to Rolla to get supplies for the camp where they had squatted on the banks of Bear Creek. They said, “Why don’t you come along with us and look over that area … We have picked out where we want to homestead and there is another quarter close by that looks good to us.”
So I jumped on the wagon with them and went in to Rolla, where in consultation with them, I bought what we considered would be my share of a week’s supply of food. Then back out and over the river we went. These men were first, Bert Sumpton who had been born and raised near Port Elgin in Ontario; second, Walter Hanuksala a young Finn from somewhere in Saskatchewan. He was bilingual — Finnish being his native language, with English running a close second, as he had started and finished his education in an English school in Canada. A side remark here — Walter could read a newspaper upside down as easily as right side up.
The third man was Alex Salo or Salomaki. He was fresh out of Finland, had no English and so had to depend on Walter to interpret for him. I think he mistrusted Walter’s interpretations somewhat, as Walter was a little impatient with him, in the manner of some eighteen years olds. Alex mistrusted Bert Sumpton completely, not without certain grounds, as I was to find out later.
As Walter and Alex talked in their native language, I was greatly impressed with its soft musical quality and with a little coaching from Walter I was soon able to understand Alex’s stumbling attempts at English, making allowance for his Finnish accent. In turn I soon learned to talk to him in the English words he understood. It was not long before I was official interpreter for Alex, using only English myself. Alex and I became very close friends and he and I did most of the work around the little cabin that they had built in three or four days.
They had selected a spot where a bunch of spruce trees grew reasonably straight and tall, cutting only trees that the three of them could carry on their shoulders. They had built a shanty-roof cabin about 13 x 17 feet. For the roof they had laid on smaller poles, both spruce and poplar, as close together as they could. Over these they laid the boughs they had lopped off the spruce trees and over this they spread about six inches of dirt dug from around the cabin. For chinking they had used the moss which grew quite thickly in that same spruce grove.
Part of the load of supplies that they had hired the team to haul out consisted of three rough, one by ten boards, six or seven feet long to use for a door, a couple of small windows, a second hand B.C. heater they had bought for two dollars, a frying pan, kettle, and enough dishes for the three of them.
Alex, using his skill acquired in Finland, was able to put the door together using light poles for cross pieces. He also built wooden hinges and wooden door latch. The door hung straight and true, the latch clicked shut when we pulled the door shut and opened just as easy. I forget how he put the windows in. The stove had a few lengths of stovepipe passing out through a hole in the roof.
By the end of my first day with them we were all closed in snug and warm. The dirt floor was fine and our bunks made from light springy poles covered with spruce boughs, soft and fragrant. Later we regretted we had no chimney, for if the pipes got too hot the roof would start to smoke around the pipes and one of us would have to jump up quickly and pour water on the hot spot. Also as time went on the spruce boughs on our bunks became dry and the needles fell off making our bunks very bumpy and uncomfortable.
But that was later. And so here is a rather detailed account of my first few days in the Peace River Block. Little did I know that I was almost the last of the horsemen. The slow easy life of my boyhood was to change and soon the hustle and worry of the machine age was to take over. At some future date I can tell you more of the carefree days before the stock market crash of ‘29 and the great depression that was to follow.
After we had made ourselves as comfortable as we could, Bert Sumpton took me out to show me the quarter he thought I would like -0 and I did. It lay along the north bank of Bear Creek with an almost unobstructed view of Bear Mountain some thirty miles to the southwest. Dawson Creek people will recognize this mountain as the ridge where C.J.D.C. has its transmission towers. The legal description of my land was to be, as I remember it, North East of 30, Twp. 79, Range 13, W6th. However, at this time it had not even been surveyed and I, like many others in that area, was to become a squatter.
A sort of gentleman’s agreement allowed us to build and even improve our land if we wished, providing we could supply the Government with a fair idea of location. If and when the land was surveyed we squatters were to be given one year’s grace to file on our quarters. Also we would be allowed time from the first day we had settled on this land to apply against our homestead duties. I hope this is clear enough to you who are listening. If it is not, remember I am condensing this from a page or so of fine print of an old act passed almost fifty years ago, and read by me about once or twice at that time.
The first thing I had to do was get a set of logs somewhere off my area so that other land seekers would know that I had claimed that area. It still had no properly defined borders. So while the boys still had their rented team we all pitched in and it took a day to pile a bunch of building logs up on a clear place overlooking the view I liked so well. These logs were not very good and I never did use them. They were too big at the butt end and small at the top and full of big knots, but they did serve their purpose in giving notice to all who were interested that someone intended to live there.
We had to return the team in a few days as the feed “Bad-Eye Brown” had given the boys for them was all gone. Winter was coming on and as a fire had swept all that area that fall there was no grass to be had for feed. This meant we had to walk out to Rolla for our mail and groceries — about 16 miles we figured we had to go. The Finlanders were real good walkers, able to make four or four and a half miles an hour, with 20 or 30 pound packs on their backs. Bert Sumpton and I were not so good and we hated walking. Never before had I been more than a few feet from transportation that I could use in sitting down position, and I soon made up my mind that these long trips to Rolla had to stop, for me at least.
My money was dribbling away quite rapidly and I found out about this time that my three partners had next to none. This surprised me, for remember this was early in 1929 when cash was still flowing freely and not too hard to get.
I bought two dozen number zero traps and set up a small line along Bear Creek for catching weasel. I had never trapped before and I soon found that, although I was fairly successful catching the weasel, I made an unholy mess out of skinning and stretching the hides. This forced Mr. Atkinson, the fur buyer in Rolla to dock the price on my first batch or two quite a bit. However, he did give me some lessons on stretching fur and by the middle of January I was keeping us all in groceries from my weasel money.
I decided to buy a horse. I was completely fed up with the long walks to town. Also I could see we would never get decent logs out of the bush unless we had a half- decent skidding horse.
Bert Sumpton agreed to help me build a small barn in a grove of poplars growing on my quarter. These provided 6″ diameter logs and in a few days we had that small barn built warm and snug, capable of holding two horses real comfortably.
Bert had an idea how we could build a sort of a jumper for this horse if we could only find some lumber and a bit of iron for shoeing the runners. By this time there was about a foot of snow on the ground.
I had decided to buy only one horse, because feed was quite expensive that year, and I felt that until another season’s grass started growing, one horse was all I could afford to feed. It did not seem likely that Walter, Alex and Bert were going to be able to contribute much to the grubstake. Alex and Walter roamed the country day after day looking for moose, but of course the fire had driven them beyond reach. On in February sometime, Alex flushed a bear out of a den on the banks of the creek, but she was a tough old bird at that time of the year. However, she was a welcome change from oatmeal porridge, beans and flour and stewed prunes.
I bought a 1200 pound horse from Jim McFarlane for $80, borrowed another one from him plus a harness and sleigh, bought oat bundles from Punch Landry and loaded up the sleigh with some lumber and iron from Rolla – and, oh yes — a galvanized was tub. Driving by Punch Landry’s I took on 200 bundles and so came home long after dark, where soon the two horses were munching feed in my new barn.
I then set the tub on a couple of small logs, filled it with snow and built a fire under it, and before bedtime had a tub full of water for the horses which they gratefully drank. From then on I followed a simple routine for water for the horse. As soon as he had drunk all he wanted I would refill the tub with snow, place a slow fire under it and by the next time he was thirsty I had lots there for him to drink.
On in January, Alex and I took my horse, hitched to a sort of a stone boat we had made for hauling wood and went looking for logs for our houses. We went east about three miles, some of the time along the Spirit River Trail and some of the time over a sort of a clearing that had been burned over the fall before.
We found a pretty good grove of green spruce not far off the trail and made a straight road in to it. We did this by me staying at the trees, and Alex making his way back to the trail. I then kept calling as loudly as I could and Alex walked straight toward me. It was then a simple matter to brush a wide enough trail for a team to follow back along the tracks that Alex had made in the snow. I’ve often had a suspicion that much of the Alaska highway was surveyed using such a simple method.
By the time we had the trail brushed out it was almost dark so we untied the horse, and jumping on the sled, I let him trot off for home as fast as he could. There were no seats on this sled so I stood up at the front using the reins as a sort of a balance. Alex stood directly behind me with his hands on my shoulders.
We had just nicely got speed up when the low sled ran smack into a stump. The sled stopped suddenly. I fell on my face as there was nothing in front to stop me, and Alex fell on me hitting the back of my head a resounding blow with his chin. This laid the both of us completely out for a few minutes. I was very angry at Alex for hitting me on the back of the head. He was very angry with me for hitting him on the chin. However our senses soon returned and we both soon saw the accident for what it was.
The rigging that attached the horse to the sleigh was strong enough to stop the horse in his tracks, so picking ourselves up, we lifted the sled off the stump and away we went again. This time on our knees in case of another sudden stop.
By the time we got home and had the horse fed and watered and stabled for the night, Alex was developing a very bad pain in one of his front teeth. When we got into the cabin we found that in addition to a very sore jaw one of his teeth was broken square off with the raw nerves sticking out. We had absolutely nothing to fix it with so decided that early in the morning we would go and look for a dentist. Aside from a good lump on my head I was all right.
I think I’ll have to tell you a little about Prince, my horse. He was about 1200 pounds as I said, a common slab-sided sort of a horse, bay in colour and little broken-winded, really not much of a horse but he had one great asset. Without using any lead rope he would follow me wherever I went, with his nose almost on my shoulder yet never stepping on my heels. I soon found he was a really good horse for pulling logs out from among the stumps and brush without my touching a line. I would walk into the bush to the log I wanted, with my axe, clearing a narrow path as I went, Prince following faithfully behind. On reaching the log I would step behind him, pick up his single tree or evener with the chain attached and on command he would turn around. I would hook the chain to the log and tell him to go. He would then back track to the skidway, pulling the log behind him. If the log got stuck on a stump he would stop, turn at a sharp right or left angle, pull the log clear of the stump and then return to his tracks and carry on. All the time I was walking in the good path he had made. Prince and I piled up logs for several houses that year and as you see I have never forgotten him.
Long before daylight the next morning Alex and I were up, Prince was fed and watered, we had our breakfast, hitched Prince to the jumper and started off. We had no tracks on the trail for the first four or five miles. Because a windstorm had blown down a few dead poplar tress Alex walked ahead throwing these out of the way. The snow was about a foot deep which made our heavy jumper quite hard for Prince to pull, so I walked behind. After 3 or 4 miles we joined up with some other sleigh tracks which made the going much easier for Prince, and Alex and I jumped into our sled for a little rest.
By the time we got to the Pouce River the road was quite good and the river was frozen over, so no trouble there. However, we were faced with the long uphill grade from the bottom of the river to within three-quarters of a mile of Rolla.
That sled was heavy and we could not make very good time. Finally, shortly after 11 a.m., we had Prince eating oat bundles in Ole Grotheim’s livery barn in Rolla. He had been pulling steadily for almost four hours and was in need of rest and refreshment.
Alex and I went to Mrs. Forbes for dinner and to inquire about where we could find a dentist. Mrs. Forbes thought there was one in Pouce Coupe. So being a little disappointed at not finding one in Rolla, we hitched up Prince again and started for Pouce Coupe. The road was good and hard here; the day was sunny for Janaury, and Prince jogged right along down through Saskatoon Creek and up the other side, then down through the valley of the Dawson Creek and up the other side. About two hours later we were in Pouce Coupe.
“Yes,” they said. “There is a dentist – calls here once a week but his home is in Dawson Creek and there you will find him.”
So, after getting directions on how to get to the village of Dawson Creek, I turned Prince around and back north. I went for two miles, then west five, then north one, then west about one half-mile, and just as the sun was setting, Reasbeck’s hotel and livery barn and the Co-Op store came in view, on the banks of South Dawson Creek where now Canalta Park is.
After putting the horse in the barn, Alex and I started out to find the Dentist. We did find him, in the hotel, and he said he would look after Alex first thing in the morning.
Reasbeck’s hotel was full up as far as beds were concerned but they fed us the usual big supper around the long table. Alex and I had decided we would have to sit out the night in a couple of the chairs in the waiting room, but about 10 o’clock we looked up to see a mattress come tumbling down the stairs and a whole lot of blankets and pillows after it. “There,” said Mr. Reasbeck, “make that up into a bed on the floor here, it will be better than sleeping in a chair.” We lost no time in fixing up our bed and soon I was fast asleep for my first night in Dawson Creek. When I went to pay Mr. Reasbeck for our supper and breakfast, and the horse’s stall he would take nothing for the bed. Once again the hospitality of the North shone through.
The dentist’s home, (a Dr. Campbell), was in a two-room house a little west of the creek, I think about where there is a gateway into a pasture field now.
He had told us to come over about nine in the morning. The front room of the house Dr. Campbell used as his office, with his chair, a drill operated by foot-power and cupboards with his instruments in them. In the back room was a small table, a four lid cook stove — a wood burner of course — and his bed which he had just gotten out of.
He put Alex in the dentist chair, and took a look at Alex’s tooth. Finding that Alex had next to no English, Dr. Campbell said to me, “I’ll have to put a gold cap on it. I guess I had better sterilize some of these instruments.” Gathering up a handful or two he took them out to the cook stove where he had dumped his supper dishes into a dish pan sitting on the back of the stove. He threw the instruments in with the dishes, poured a couple of pots of water taken from a barrel in the corner, stoked up the fire and sat down and talked with me till the water came to a boil.
Getting a tray from his office and using a pair of pliers, he fished his tools out of the boiling water, set them on the tray and was ready for business.
Off the shelf he took a bottle that looked as if it had a few grains of sand in it. “That’s gold he said to me,” and, taking a small bit of it in the hollow of his hand, and then placing it on a small anvil, proceeded to pound it out very flat and thin with a hammer. When he had it thin enough to suit him, he brought some steel casts of men’s teeth out of another drawer, searched around till he found a tooth that would have looked like Alex’s if Alex had all of his teeth there. Then, placing the little gold sheet on the steel tooth, he proceeded to mould it around the pattern with his little hammer. The bottom, or open end was a little jagged around the edge, so with a pair of snips he smoothed this off, putting the pieces back in the bottle. He then worked on Alex’ tooth a little and slipped the tooth he had made over Alex’s broken one. A look of immense relief spread over Alex’ face. He had no more pain I could plainly see. “That will be $10 if you have it,” said Dr. Campbell and went back to his other room to get his breakfast. Alex didn’t have $10 but I had, so I gave it to the Doctor.
Alex and I got my horse, and after inquiring about the best road back to Rolla, we started. I remember we drove out a country road over what is now 17th Street. We had good going all the way to Rolla, fed and watered Prince in Ole Grotheim’s barn again, had our dinner at Mrs. Forbes’ and about six at night was back in our cabin on the banks of Bear Creek. I lost track of Alex in a year or two but so far as I know that tooth never gave him a moment’s trouble. I heard that he had died some time in the early 60’s but do not know if he still had the tooth.
Later in the winter I traded Prince, my skidding horse, for Bubbles. Prince’s sex was against him. Also I felt I could get a horse that could go faster on the road than Prince. Bubbles looked to be such a mare. She was young and sound, had a kind eye in her head and she was the proper sex to raise me colts to work my land in the years to come. Jim McFarlane also had Bubbles. In fact he was continually trading horses much as the car salesmen do now with cars. I had to give Jim Prince and $20 to get Bubbles. I also had to drive Prince over to Jim’s to pick up Bubbles. Jim said she was broken to harness but had never been rode or driven single.
While transferring Prince’s harness to Bubbles I came to the conclusion that the mare Bubbles knew very little about harness. She was terrified when I dropped it on her.- “Oh! oh!” I said to myself, “Jim has been a little careless with the truth when he said Bubbles was used to the harness.”
Jim was not at home the day I arrived. I had hoped to get a little help from him hitching Bubbles to my jumper. As he was not there I located four poplar trees in the yard that were sitting just right, and using other poles built a two sided stall about two feet by ten feet. In this I tied Bubbles. She did answer the halter real well. I then took another pole and, using ropes to tie it, I squeezed her into her two sided stall. This grounded her quite effectively without hurting her in anyway. I then pulled the shafts of the jumper on each side of her, fastened them good to the surcingle and hooked up the tugs. I then cast loose the pole that was holding her, got into the jumper and gathered up the lines. She stood there a minute or two thinking she was still tied up solid but she soon found she could push the shafts a little sideways and thus clear the front of her stall. I shook the lines a little bit and she bounded out of there just like a bucking horse coming out of the chutes at a rodeo.
After about a half a mile she settled down to a good fast trot and about a half an hour later we were in Rolla. I had a real good horse, but man! did she ever need watching! I tied her to a post still hitched to the jumper.
After getting a few groceries I untied her and attempted to leave. Bubbles wanted to go west and I wanted to go east. She had another bucking streak and we compromised by circling around half the back yards in Rolla. I got her headed east just as somebody’s woodpile loomed up in front of us. So over it we went! A good sized block of wood became wedged under the jumper and with me and the jumper teetering on top of the block of wood, Bubbles took us out of town, east, at a good fast gallop. The pounding of the block of wood on the road made an unholy noise, scaring the wits out of poor Bubbles and we were almost out as far as the graveyard — a half mile — before I got her slowed down enough that I could hop out and thus free the wood from under the jumper.
We made it back to our cabin on Bear Creek in about two hours, almost twice as fast as Prince could have done it.
I was real proud of my mare, considering the fact that all this was completely new to her. She was not even unduly warm, although of course she was sweating a little. I let her cool off in my barn a little before I watered her but that is about all the extra attention she needed.
Waiting for me in the cabin was a Mr. Eli Jykennen who, with his wife and two little girls and a boy lived three miles west of me. He was a Finlander with very little English at that time. However, by using Walter as an interpreter, I found that Eli wanted to hire my horse and jumper so that he could take his oldest little girl, Anne, in to Rolla to see the Doctor. I readily agreed but stipulated that I had to go along to drive my new mare.
Old Prince would have been fine for Eli to learn to drive, but Bubbles was no horse for an amateur. This took some explaining, especially as Walter was not working too hard at his part of the explaining.
Anyway before daylight the next morning I had Bubbles in front of Eli’s door and we loaded Anne in. She was a beautiful girl, about seven years old with long honey coloured hair. Owing to the language difficulties I never did find out what was the matter with her. Eli was quite concerned about keeping her warm and he wrapped her well in two or three of their own quilts.
Bubbles was still quite skittish but learning more and more how to handle herself in the awkward shafts of the jumper. For the most part she jogged along quite good. However, I had to watch quite closely as now and then she would take a notion to turn square around. Like the old strawberry roan, she could ‘turn on a dime and give you some change.’
That is she could, if she had not been hampered by those terrible shafts and the jumper. I bet she hated them. Her burning desire was to get out of where she was and get some where else, and this of course is what I liked about her.
As the closest way to Rolla from Eli’s was by way of Hackett’s crossing, we used that trail. Now at that time the trail was not very good on the east side of the River — nor on the west side either for that matter. The steep banks on the east side were causing me some worry as there were one or two steep hills where we would practically have to slide down. I was afraid Bubbles would not know how to hold back her heavy load of two men and girl plus the jumper.
So when we got to the top of the hill I got out and asked Eli to get out too. We no sooner got out than I saw my mistake. My feet slipped from under me on the steep grade and I almost lost control of Bubbles who started kicking and bucking and running down that crooked steep hill with renewed vigour. I was still hanging on to the reins but sliding along on my fanny and searching desperately with my feet for some sort of a toehold so that I could apply some pressure to the reins.
I was terrified. There was a sick little, beautiful, blonde-haired Anne sitting all bundled up in that sled with a crazy bronc almost running wild down that awful hill.
I decided something had to be done quickly so, with the last bit of control I had, I steered Bubbles between two trees on the side of the road. She passed through, the shafts passed through, but as I had hoped the front of the jumper banged smack into one of the trees. The singletree broke and away went Bubbles down the hill with the high flying tugs and a bit of singletree attached to each one of them, smacking her over the rear with every jump.
Picking myself up, I turned to see Eli with a sobbing Anne in his arms and he was trying to comfort her through his own sobs. Taking off one mitt, he put out one hand to shake mine, “Good! Good! Good!” he said and by the tone of his voice I knew he meant it.
Well, Anne was safe which was the most important consideration. But there we were out on that God-forsaken hill with no horse. I had no idea where she would go to as she certainly was not on home territory and, of course, Eli and I could not talk over a situation like this.
We bundled Anne back into the jumper, then worked it back onto the trail and with the two of us getting between the shafts, started on down the hill. Anne seemed to feel that we were much more reliable than any horse and soon started to laugh.
We made quick time to the bottom of the hill, about a mile, and out on to the river. Signs of Bubbles’ passing were quite evident by virtue of the fact that those broken singletree ends took a gouge out of the snow whenever they hit the ground. On the flat on the other side of the river was a cluster of old cabins built by an oil-well crew many years before. In these cabins John Hodgson and his wife and two girls were spending the winter.
When we got close to the cabin John cane out to meet us. “Don’t you think you should have a horse for that jumper?” he said, “By gosh, yes!” I said. “Have you got one I could have till I find mine?”
“Come on into the barn,” he said, and there was Bubbles munching oat bundles. John had heard her running down the hill and managed to catch her. Not knowing when someone would be along to claim her, had put her in his barn and fed her. John if you hear this, “Thank you” once again.
Mrs. Hodgson and the girls took Anne into the house. I took an axe and chopped down a willow tree that looked just about right for a singletree. Eli took his hunting knife and whittled off the ends till we could drive in the iron hooks from my broken singletree and there was another singletree. John had a brace and bit to bore a hole through the centre and some haywire to wrap around one of the shafts that was cracked a little and we were ready to go.
Bubbles was pretty frightened of the whole proceeding but John was better with horses than I was and helped me hitch up. We were soon on our way again.
Now the long, steep climb out of the Pouce River faced us. A Chinook had turned the road almost to ice and poor Bubbles had a most difficult time standing up, let along pulling, as she had no shoes with sharp calks. However, with me out on her lead rope pulling her, and Eli behind pushing on the jumper, we finally got to the top of the hill.
I think this last experience convinced Bubbles that although I might be a madman, she and I had one thing in common, to get from one place to another as quickly as we could. From that time on she was the gentle, willing, tough horse I knew her to be when I looked into her eyes in Jim McFarlane’s stable.
Eli took Anne to a Dr. Simpson in Rolla. I fed Bubbles again in Ole Grotheim’s barn. Had lunch at Mrs. Forbes and then took Bubbles around to Ray Servant’s (the blacksmith) and asked him to put sharp shoes on her for me.
“You here again?” he said. “I thought the way you ran that horse over the woodpile yesterday you’d be dead before you got home.” “You should have seen us today” I said. Ray like most Frenchmen was good with horses and we actually had very little difficulty shoeing Bubbles. The sharp shoes and the icy road made a good combination and soon Anne, Eli and I were bouncing along on the way home
I never got to haul wheat on the Spirit River Trail. So on towards spring in 1929, I decided to go sightseeing, along this trail. Once or twice, before I arrived in the Peace River, I had heard of this trail and especially of the beautiful big well kept horses, that pulled their heavy loads of wheat over it. It’s a temptation to tell a little of the origin of this trail but, others have done this who have worked on it . . . . I think of Lea Miller of Rolla. I never did haul a load over the trail as this was the last year it was used. Perhaps I should just say, for those of you born since 1930, that snow was a great asset to all the early teamsters in Canada. Well packed snow, packed at about twenty degrees Fahrenheit, 6.7 Celsius, made the best trail. Over this the heavy freight sleighs shod with steel, or cast iron, slid very easily, making it possible for horses to pull real heavy loads. As the thermometer dipped the frost grabbed harder on the runners of sleighs, making them pull heavier.
I was hauling logs in Ontario where it was cool enough to freeze, yet not real cold, and here, four, five, and six tons, was not an uncommon load for two horses. Horses could exert a very strong force for a short distance, and once the load was moving, the tugs would slacken and the horses could walk freely along.
I had also hauled quite a lot of wheat in Saskatchewan. Here, using four horses, hitched to heavy wagons, with a load of four to six tons. Oh yes, a round trip of about twenty-four miles was considered about the limit for one day for horses. Twelve miles one way with a load would consume four or five hours and the return journey, empty, about three hours. Both in Ontario and in Saskatchewan we were always home the same night. Here on the Spirit River Trail the weather was a little colder; consequently the sleighs pulled harder, so about three tons for every two horses was considered a good load.
I left our little cabin on Bear Creek long after daylight and Bubbles jogged right along, out along the winding, but fairly level trail. The first stopping place was about five miles from my home. This was the Bear Creek stopping place, managed that year by a Mr. Blakus — his son George now farms out north of Bonanza. As Bubbles was still quite fresh I did not stop here but carried on through the cluster of log buildings, over a crude wooden bridge, which spanned the head waters of Bear Creek, and on over huge areas of flat rich land toward a ridge of low hills. Here and there smoke was rising from brand new cabins where squatters like Alex, Walter, Bert and I were just beginning a new life.
Soon after crossing Bear Creek, our trail joined the East Pouce Coupe Trail, which followed the old railroad grade, which was never used as a railroad but did make a good level, reasonably straight sleigh road, all the way to Spirit River. There the railway and elevators were waiting to receive the grain from all points west.
I began passing teams with their loads of grain. These I found were mostly four-horse teams hitched to a heavy sleigh, with a smaller sleigh hooked on behind. The driver sat out in the open on top of his grain box with his feet hanging over the front and wrapped in all the clothes he owned. One thing surprised me. The lead teams tow chain was just fastened solid, and not on an evener or pulley as we had used on the prairies. There was two reasons for this dead hitch, as it was called. First the driver could make the leaders slacken their chain and let the pole horses pull the load around some of the sharp curves on the road. Second, each team could pull to their utmost going over some of the steep hills on the riverbanks. With an evener, an outfit was only as good as the weakest horse. One disadvantage. A lazy horse could sure get away with a lot of idle miles and it took an alert driver to see that each horse was doing his share.
As I overtook these slow moving outfits they very kindly stopped at a wide place on the road and let me pull around them. This was the rule in all provinces. The loaded sleigh stayed on the best part of the road; and the empty sleighs found their way around as best they could.
About 11:30 in the morning I came on another cluster of log buildings and hay stacks. For the life of me I can’t remember the name of this stopping place but it was managed by Jaques De LaRonde (Pronounced by all who knew him ‘Jockey Larohn’). We would call him a Metis now. One of his helpers directed me up close to one of the log barns and helped me unhitch Bubbles. He took her lead rope and led her, first to the creek for water — she was not hot — and then in to the barn where he had already filled all the mangers with hay, in readiness for the freighters that were beginning to arrive.
I stood around for awhile watching the freighters come in. As soon as
they had spotted their load in the yard two or three helpers would begin unhitching the horses, and putting them in the barn. The driver would jump off the sleigh, and pull off a sort of a crude little trunk about 18″ x 18″ x 24″ built of one inch thick boards. This was his grubbox; for you see; shelter for man and beast and hay and water for the horses was all a stopping place was expected to provide.
The driver would then proceed with his grub box, into the bunkhouse. Thaw out his frozen food, and cook himself a hearty meal, on the six-lidded cook stove, found in one end of the bunk house.
I think I should describe the stopping place a little better. There were stopping places all along the trail at about ten mile intervals. They all were built to the same general pattern with the logs available in that area. The logs were chinked with mud; poles and sod were used for the roof. Necessary buildings at a stopping place were, two or three barns for the horses, a bunk house for the men, another smaller residence for the family, and quite likely, two or three smaller buildings used to store food for the family. Also quite evident were the stacks of wild hay placed near the barn for convenience.
Inside in one end of the bunkhouse was an open space for a cook stove, and two or three rough tables for the teamsters to eat at. At the other end, and not necessarily divided from the dining area, a big log lay about six or seven feet from the wall, and wild hay would be piled in there. On this, those who were staying for the night would throw their bed roll, and when they got sleepy would crawl in and got to sleep — hopefully. There were from two to three hundred freighters on the road in those days, and one being an early bird would arrive at four in the afternoon and others would keep on arriving all night. The four p.m. guy would get up at four a.m. and from then on guys would be leaving. And each one would cook his own supper and breakfast in that same room. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.
I had made up a lunch for myself, so I also went in to the bunk house and ate it. Sitting in there was a hungry looking young fellow, a hitch-hiker looking over the country. In came Jim O’Callaghan with his grub box. “You look hungry son,” said Jim, “Help me cook and eat this meal,” and fishing a huge fry pan out of his grub box, he proceeded to dump a bunch of frozen boiled potatoes, frozen boiled beans, and a whole lot of beef stew, frozen of course, into the pan. The blazing wood fire in the cook stove would soon thaw this very substantial meal for two.
Handing a couple of dirty tin cups to the hungry boy, he said, “Wash these up son, I never wash dishes after a meal, as I’d just have to wash them again before I eat.” Then dumping some flour and some baking powder and salt into another pan, first greasing it, he mixed in some water, stuck this in the oven, and in about twenty minutes out came a beautiful golden bannock. The hungry looking young fellow had not been much help getting the meal ready, but he sure did his share getting rid of that grub. Jim also made sure I also had enough as I too stood out like a sore thumb in those surroundings that were strange to me.
Jockey Larone also took quite an interest in me. To think that I would drive sixteen miles just to see his common stopping place was almost more than he could understand and he invited me into his private house for more of a chat and another cup of tea.
Sitting on the rough board floor of that crude log cabin was very beautiful little girl of about three years. She was so pretty, with her long straight black hair, her round brown eyes, and her ready smile. I have never forgotten her. (Matilda DeLaRonde [Larone], later went to school in Dawson Creek, married here, and now I have forgotten her married name). I had several conversations with her and her father in the late fifties and I always felt richer after talking to them.
Well, all good things come to a close and soon I was saying goodbye to Jockey. He personally helped me hitch up Bubbles to my crude jumper, and I was on my way home. Crossing a sort of an open meadow, I met a four-horse team, pulling hard. The day had turned colder and huge clouds of steam were rising from the nostrils and steaming backs of the straining houses. Sitting up in the drivers’ seat, urging his team on was a little short stout man, wearing a big floppy Mexican hat. The brim falling down over his eyes, so that one wondered how he could see where he was going. This hat was Wes Yeager’s trade mark, and the hat, the heavily loaded horses, and the big grey team, following along behind, with no driver, were well-known from Fort Nelson to Spirit River.
A pretty girl and a famous freighter was almost more than one could
expect to see in one day, so as the winter sun sank into the west, I made my way home well content with my days journey.
In later years, while working on a threshing outfit, I ran into another Yaeger — John, I believe. This had been a bad fall. Heavy snow and frost had almost ruined the heavy strawed oat crops that year making the bundles very hard to manage, and it was a real pleasure to pull in onto one hundred acres of oats at John Yaeger’s in North Rolla. The stooks standing straight and true, and dry, and the grain plump and sound.
“How come, ” I said to John, “how come your crop is so much better than all your neighbours.”
“Easy,” he said. “I watch the Calendar, not the crop, and on the first of September I started cutting this, even though it was still very green. It cured in the stooks, and now I have grain instead of feathers.”
Typed, February 1975